Maya Van Wagenen, 15, turned to an old book for social tips – and has struck gold

By Andrea Billups Stephen M. Silverman
October 30, 2013 10:20 AM
Courtesy Maya Van Wagenen

How does a geeky 8th grader become popular in a new school?

Would you believe white gloves, pearls and form-fitting girdles?

That, at least, was the right recipe for Maya Van Wagenen, now 15, who tried to fit into a new class in Brownsville, Texas, by turning to a 1950s advice book, Betty Cornell’s Teen-age Popularity Guide.

Following the vintage volume to the letter, Van Wagenen learned the proper steps in how to extract pimples, coordinate her colors and keep her weight down – eat grapefruit and wheat toast.

Sample tidbit from the book (no kidding): “In the summer, you may shave the whole length of your whole leg if your hair is exceptionally dark. Otherwise, you can shave just to your knee and bleach the rest.”

Van Wagenen also did something very wise: She kept a journal of her social progress with her peers at school.

The teen has now parlayed her journey into a $300,000 two-book deal with Penguin Group publishers. Set for release in April, her first book will be titled Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek, reports New York Post.

Betty Cornell's Glamour Guide for Teens, circa 1950s

But wait, there’s more. DreamWorks has optioned the tale for the big screen, making Van Wagenen the youngest non-actor ever to score a feature deal, reports Deadline Hollywood – adding that Amy Harris, whose credits include Sex and the City and The Carrie Diaries, is assisting with the script.

As might be imagined, all this has changed Van Wagenen’s life – a little, at least. Though she now lives in rural Georgia, she still shares a room with her younger brother, who’s in the 6th grade.

According to her Twitter profile, she is a “Lover of British television, books, birds and chocolate.”

As for the author of the original book, Betty Cornell is now 86 and thrilled about what’s happened with her long-ago work. “I thought I would never hear about the book again,” she admitted to the Post.

As for whether her words for how to survive the ’50s are still relatable to teens in 2013, the mother of three and former model from Teaneck, N.J., said, “Some of it, but not all, because so many things have changed.”